Choose words based on how they sound.

Posted: November 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , | No Comments »

Write as if your paper were going to be read out loud and choose words for their spoken impact. The same techniques that work for poets often work in prose, as well. Your words should have rhythm—a pleasing cadence of stressed and unstressed syllables within sentences and an appealing variation between short and long sentences.

For example, alliteration puts punch in your writing if you keep it subtle and don’t overuse it. Consider the famous brief for the schoolchildren in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (also cited in Steven Stark’s Writing to Win, Main Street Books, 1999). There, Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues used alliteration to summarily distinguish the other side’s cases. In Brown, the Board of Education’s brief cited equal protection cases that raised common nuisance issues, such as noise or overhanging cornices. Marshall and his colleagues dismissed that precedent with one memorable phrase. They argued that those cases involved a mere “cautious calculation of conveniencesthat had no bearing on the essential rights undermined by segregated education. The phrase “a cautious calculation of conveniences” is a pithy sound-bite—made memorable through alliteration—that dismisses and distinguishes all the opposing authority Marshall faced.

Listen as you write and let your ear be your guide.

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